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The Exchange

An Unemployment Insurance Update: New Extensions, Application Confusion, & Bills For 'Over Payment'

Sign inside window of Newfields post office that says "No mask, no service, mandatory by Governor Sununu."
Annie Ropeik, NHPR
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The new federal stimulus package extends the number of weeks Granite Staters can receive unemployment insurance, but confusion and frustration about the application process remain, and some people are now getting bills for overpayment. We take your questions for the Deputy Commissioner of N.H. Employment Security. Find the full audio and a transcript of the conversation below.

Air date: Thursday, April 8, 2021.

GUEST:

  • Rich Lavers - Deputy Commissioner of the N.H. Department of Employment Security. 

RESOURCES:

The N.H. Department of Employment Security. 

"Seeing 'You Do Not Have A Current Claim' For Your N.H. Unemployment Insurance? That's Okay," from Alli Fam. 

"Unemployment Benefits for Some N.H. Parents to End with Full School Reopening," from Sarah Gibson.

"Complaint alleges systemic breakdown in N.H. unemployment cases," from Scott Merrill at NHBR.  

"Rye man sues state for seeking overpayments of COVID-19 jobless benefits," from Mark Hayward at the Union Leader. 

This show was produced by Christina Phillips.

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. For the last year, the state and federal government have been providing extra unemployment insurance for people whose jobs were affected by covid-19 with increased payments and more weeks that those payments could be received. Now, the new stimulus package extends this program through September 6th. But at the same time, more than 10,000 Granite Staters may owe money for overpayment today in The Exchange. We take your questions about all this with New Hampshire's deputy commissioner of employment security, Richard Lavers. We'll ask about filing for and receiving unemployment insurance and how 2021 might be different from 20 20. Deputy Commissioner Lavers. Welcome back. Thanks for being here.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Hey, Laura, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you and your listeners.

Laura Knoy:
Well, before we get into specifics, I want to ask you a broad question, and that is just how this whole year of pandemic disruption, you know, worker health concerns, child care problems, fluctuating employment status, how has all of this changed the way that we regard unemployment, unemployment insurance?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Yeah, I mean, all of those issues that you raise, we have all of those issues to be worried about. Plus needing to operate a program in high demand. So it's the best way to describe it that it makes the most sense to me. It's been a year of just constant intensity day in and day out, really needing to make sure that that not only you know me, but the really important folks here at the department that do all the hard work and getting these claims adjudicated and paid, making sure that that they have the resources they need, that they're coming in, they're motivated, they're ready to go.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
And it's just a great team of people over here, very mission oriented. They know how important the work that they do is and they're coming in day in and day out. They know how difficult it is going to be each day that they're coming in, but they're getting out of bed. They're coming in with a smile on and they're answering calls. They're looking at claims, getting those claims moving and making sure that people who are eligible continue to have this vital resource as we continue to to move through the pandemic.

Laura Knoy:
What types of situations have made your team, you know, turn to you and say, I don't really know how to manage this? Again, people's employment status and their situations have just fluctuated so much over the year.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Yeah. And the the programs that the department has been tasked with implementing have been very different than traditional unemployment, you know, traditional unemployment that exists today and existed before the pandemic. It's very much based on individuals that are unemployed through no fault of their own. In most instances, that involves a layoff. So those folks, they come in, they file an application. We look at the circumstances of their reason for not working. We verify information with their employer. We verify their earnings, and they're either determined, eligible or not.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
The new program, that we have that were originally created in the CARES Act and have been extended several times and now run until September 4th, these programs are very different than the unemployment program that existed before the pandemic. For one, the new programs are really based on the honor system, its self attestation of the individual, where they come in, they verify for us why they are currently unable to work. They fill out that application and then each week they certify back to us as to the reasons under the CARE Act why they are currently unable to work. So it's not a layoff situation.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
It's situations where people, whether it be they need to be home with a remote learning student, they've had covid or they're caring for someone with covid or their physician has advised that they self quarantine because of their underlying health condition. So all of those reasons are reviewed each week by that individual. And then they certify to the department each week that the reason applies to them for that week, that they're seeking benefits. So it's a much different type of eligibility than the original program and staff here at the. Department needed to be able to implement a brand new program, a real 180 from that which they had been trained to do, and they needed to implement it literally overnight. So I think there have been some hiccups along the way. But I think all in all, they've done a remarkable job at doing that.

Laura Knoy:
So given what you just said, all those different situations that people are now presenting for the reason that they're unemployed instead of, you know, the factory shut down and all of a sudden I was laid off through no fault of my own, as you said. What does this suggest to you, Deputy Commissioner Leavers, about possible changes to the unemployment system that might be overdue, that might be useful even outside of a pandemic?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Well, I think that the unemployment program was tasked with providing resources during the pandemic because it was viewed as the it was an existing program and both state and federal officials felt it was the fastest way to get benefits to those individuals that were unable to work. Because even though there are striking differences between the CARES Act program, which provide benefits to an individual who can't work because of a pandemic reason versus traditional unemployment, that provides benefits to someone that's been laid off.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
The underlying common thread among both programs and I think here is where there might be some future expansion, if that's determined necessary by policymakers in the state or at the federal level, is that you still need to have been working prior to collecting benefits and you need to be eligible for one of the very specific reasons created either under the CARE Act or existing under state unemployment in order to be eligible for benefits.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Because one common misconception, because of the incredible expansion of the unemployment program and the number of people that have had to rely upon it, that that historically have not. You know, we've paid about one hundred and seventy thousand people over this past year, which equals about the number of people we paid over the course of the last decade. So the fact that you have a lot of new people who have not had any experience with the unemployment program in the past, one point of confusion is that it is an eligibility based program or so you still need to meet eligibility criteria. We need to review that we do the best we can with the information provided and the individual is certifying to us as to the ways in which they meet those eligibility criteria based on questions that they answer. So there's there's still those those common threads of you still need to have been working prior to filing. So it's not a program available to someone that just decides, you know, the pandemic is difficult for me. I could use unemployment benefits. Well, that individual might be eligible for a program, but not the unemployment program.

Laura Knoy:
I see. So so, yeah. What hasn't changed is you need to have been working because correct me if I'm wrong, Deputy Commissioner Lavers. That's partly how the unemployment insurance system is funded right. Through wages.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Correct. So the unemployment program and one thing that people might not realize is it's funded by businesses. So it's it's paid for by employers here in New Hampshire that pay a quarterly tax to employment security based on the number of people that they employ. So depending on their experience with the system, they have a tax rate that gets applied to each and every employee that they have, and then they pay into the system quarterly. And it's those dollars that are then used to pay benefits. So it's a you know, it's an insurance based system. The way we assess risk and the employer pays into the system based on their perceived risk of creating cost for the system. So it's employer and employee or completely employer funded.

Laura Knoy:
I want to ask you one more question. Deputy Commissioner Lavers about this comparison. You know how the system used to work, how we used to think about it and how that's changed. As you described, under normal employment, unemployment rules, people used to have to demonstrate that they were looking for work while receiving unemployment insurance. But as you know better than me, the economy has created some some odd situations. And I'll give you just a for instance, let's say you're a bus driver. You're not needed now because the busses are running more infrequently. But your boss says, you know, please stick around. You're trained, you're skilled. I will need you eventually. Does that bus driver have to get a job while he or she waits for the bus routes to get busier?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So you bring up a great point, Laura Knoy. And prior to the pandemic, individuals, they did have a requirement to be searching for work each week that they were filing for unemployment benefits. And that was that's a big. Part of traditional unemployment, you know, the unemployment benefit, it's really a temporary bridge to get you from that job loss that was determined not to be your fault, to help you get to that next job. So part of that work that we do is we assist those folks that are filing for unemployment. We assist in connecting them with hiring employers through a whole series of programs and services that we do out of our network of local offices that we have 12 scattered across the entire state.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So right now, during the pandemic, we've had a waiver of that work search requirement for a lot of reasons, public health reasons, just the overall circumstances, and not wanting to require individuals that are dealing with the at the beginning at state homeowners and now with trying to encourage smart behaviors and not congregating in large groups and social distancing. New Hampshire, along with just about every state in the country, has not been requiring having a work search requirement as a condition on eligibility. Well, that's a big challenge. And that's and that's and that's going to change. We're going to we're going to get back to a time when individuals are going to be required to be searching for work, will be a combination of virtual searching and in some in-person searching. But we're going to get back to that because it's a critical component of the unemployment system, because there's nothing good that happens either for the labor force in general or for the individual with long term unemployment. And we do our best to assist that individual and getting them back to work quickly.

Laura Knoy:
So interesting. So just to clarify, the requirement to search for work is waived. For now, I'm reading off of your website. No work search is required for Governor Snyder's executive order. Number five remains in effect. Please disregard the reference to work search that you received with your new claim instruction sheet. That's the that's from the website. And also says you'll receive separate notification when the work search requirement is reinstated. As you just alluded to, Deputy Commissioner Lavers, any idea when that work search requirement might be lifted?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
We don't have a set date, Laura, but, you know, as we we continue to see people returning to work, more people being vaccinated, there's a lot of factors that go into looking at that. We don't want to turn back on our work search requirement only to cause havoc within the system. We want to make sure that it can be implemented successfully. And while we know we're going to be bringing that back, we don't have a set date that we're going to be doing that.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
I mean, it's important to point out that we still have a lot of filers, Laura, with the numbers hot off the press from this morning released by US Department of Labor, we still have about 18000 people that are filing in one of the federal programs. An important point there is that folks that are in the federal pandemic program, they currently at least that's their certifying twice each week. They are unable to work right now for a very specific pandemic related reason. So requiring those people to search for work really wouldn't make any sense. Particularly think of the parent that is at home dealing with a remote learning student or has been an individual that's been advised to self quarantine.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
It really wouldn't make sense to require those individuals to be searching for work because they want to work, but because of the circumstances that we find themselves, find ourselves in with the pandemic and their individual circumstances, it doesn't make sense for them to be working right now or they can't. So we'll have to be very careful when we do bring back a work search requirement and then we'll do it gradually, will communicate it very well to impacted individuals. And then we'll obviously have to have as a companion to that when it gets brought back, as individuals are going to have to be able to work with staff in our local offices to assist them with conducting work, search, assist them with connecting with employers. So there's a lot of moving pieces there and we don't want to bring that back without really thinking it through. And we want to make sure that we do it in a fashion that doesn't create panic in those people that are currently depending upon the unemployment program.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. So it's not just a matter of, you know, voila, waiving or reinstating this work search requirement, I'm getting a sense of how complicated it is. Let's go to our listeners, lots of people with emails coming in and also phone calls. Our number is 800 eight nine two six four seven seven and Tomson Goffstown. Hi, Tom. You're on the air. Thanks for calling The Exchange today.

Caller:
Thanks for having me. Sure. So I have a question with the I'm on unemployment now, and I want to say that the office, the people I've talked to and gotten through email have been great to work with. And I want to say that they're doing a phenomenal job with everything they have. But I do have a real problem with the website and the Web, the way it's set up, it's really not functional and easy to use with being able to submit forms. So there's certain requirements that you have to submit documentation to be able to get on unemployment. And then I also had to go through an appeal by my my employer that bought my unemployment and then dealing with all those hundreds of documents that had to get submitted. And the only way that they would accept it was either by mail or fax. And it seems like their website is really lacking in that component to be able to digitalize forms and be able to attach that into your file more easily.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Tom, can I ask you a question, if you don't mind? Sure. Yeah. You had to file an appeal. So did you have a dispute with your employer about your unemployment status?

Caller:
Yes, they terminated me and I fought for a wrongful termination, and so they they they fought my appeal on unemployment. I went through the unemployments appeal process. They have a chairperson and thankfully, somebody from the office does a great job. She called me ahead of time, explained how that whole system works, how who you can ask for witnesses, how the who's going to get to go first. All that was just phenomenal, how she laid all that out. So that's a great program. Except except it's it's definitely weighted in the weight and the weight of the employer still favor because they're allowed to be represented. And my employers use the lawyer to represent them, whereas I'm the only one there and I'm the only one defending myself. So you have all you have to overcome quite a lot even through that process.

Laura Knoy:
And it would have been a little easier. Sounds like you're saying if the website had, you know, had a little more digital uptake. Thank you so much for calling Tom and for sharing that story. And Deputy Commissioner Lavers, what do you think?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So Tom brings up a whole bunch of great points there. Laura one. And I can I can say that with regard to his frustration and delivering documents to us, we are in the finishing stages right now. And Tom and I did not rehearse this, but we're in the finishing stages of actually adding a broad based upload feature on the website. Tom had referenced some of the documentation requirements that were implemented with one of the federal extensions so that people that were collecting under the federal pandemic programs as of December of twenty twenty, the federal government passed a requirement that they need to provide us documentation to substantiate their eligibility.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So what we did at that point is we, through our development team, created a new upload feature on our in the unemployment system. And that's going to be broadened out to not only documents for those federal programs that can be uploaded rather than being emailed rather than being faxed. We know those types of delivery methods are not as secure as a upload feature in our system, but we're going to have that for appeals. We're going to have that for collections. We're going to have that for people that are seeking waivers of the obligation to repay in the documentation they need to provide. So it's something that's well underway and is already available for some of the documentation requirements.

Laura Knoy:
It seems like it should be there because if you're asking folks to submit all these documents, you kind of got to make it easy for them. I can't even remember what a fax machine looks like.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Well, the primary way that they they're asked to do that law is by email. So so they attach it to an email that hasn't seemed to be a problem for people that have needed to do that. So email is is the primary option for them providing us with that documentation. They are able to fax it. They are able to mail it in if they're unable to use either of those other two methods. And for all of the all of the just to be clear, the documentation required right now under the federal pandemic program, all of that can be uploaded into our system by the individual sitting at their home. They simply scanned it and take a picture of it, convert it to the correct format and they upload it in the system. So that is available right now and has been available since the beginning of this year when that documentation requirement was implemented.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, Tom, thank you again very much for calling. And Eric's calling from Conway. Hi, Eric. You're on The Exchange. Thanks for being with us.

Caller:
Yes. I'll try to make this as quick as possible. I applied for unemployment. Yeah, as a self-employed back in March of twenty twenty. I received moneys with that money in July, end of July, beginning of August. I received the notice saying I was overpaid and was not eligible. I appealed it had the appeal appeal tribunal came up with this saying that it was their error and they failed to use the information necessary to properly establish my claim amount. And then I wrote to the deputy with a request for forgiveness, and that's where I'm at right now and I still get correspondence, is saying I have to pay back the money in the interest,

Laura Knoy:
So it's pending. So this is what you're one of the many people, Eric, that I read about who got notices saying you were overpaid with unemployment last year, Knoy. you need to pay it back. It sounds like your your appeal is pending. But Deputy Commissioner Lavers this is really interesting and I have a bunch of questions here. First of all, how does overpayment happen?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So just one thing to clarify that the request for forgiveness, that decision is not made by me. I'm not the, you know, sitting over all of these overpayments and deciding which ones to forgive and which ones not to. There's a there's a process in place that does not involve discretion on the part of any one individual. So we have a process in place. I think the caller had described that where you request a waiver and then the overpayment is reviewed, it's based on program and that determines whether or not we apply a state standard or a federal standard in order to forgive. But one critical piece of that is that there are overpayments that don't need to be repaid to the department. If someone is found overpaid and it was agency error, maybe we put someone in the incorrect program. Maybe we assigned them a incorrect weekly benefit amount.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
But it was clearly our fault and it was not something that was based on incorrect information that was provided by the claimant. Those individuals, although they technically have an overpayment because their dollars that they should not have received, they don't have to pay those back if they're not at fault in creating the overpayment. And the the difficulty then becomes, well, how do we communicate that to those individuals? Because the process is different. If they were paid and overpaid from the state program versus being considered overpaid from one of the federal programs.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, so really complicated.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Yeah, it is law. And with individuals like self-employed individuals, gig workers that have received benefits, if they were for some reason found overpaid with our with your caller, it was through agency error, it sounds like. But for others that we have a lot of self-employed individuals that overstated their earnings. They provided us and certified to us with an amount that they said they made the prior year. And then when they go to submit their tax documentation, which is required under the federal program, which is the only program that pays benefits to the self-employed and to those give workers, their earnings were a lot less. And so we didn't overpay them because we made a mistake. We overpaid them because they misrepresented their earnings to us. And so that's a distinction in the types of overpayments that you have, those that are the fault of the individual and those that are not the fault of the individual.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
But getting back to the program, if the overpayment was paid out of the state unemployment program, the decision that the person receives in almost all cases, I can't say every case because I know there are some cases that it doesn't happen and we try to fix those as we become aware of them. But the decision says right in it why they're overpaid, how much they're overpaid, and whether or not they're at fault in creating the overpayment. And if they are at fault and they disagree with that, they have the opportunity to appeal it. But if they are not at fault, we waive their obligation to repay right then in there. And that decision.

Laura Knoy:
Well, welcome. Yeah, go ahead.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
And just real quickly, and but if it's a federal overpayment, the federal rules do not allow us to waive based purely on whether or not the claimant is at fault or not. They require us on an individual basis. We can't do a a group or a mass waiver. We are required to look on an individual basis at that individual's financial circumstances to determine whether or not repayment would create a financial burden. That's a that's a tough process.

Laura Knoy:
Well, yeah, it seems enormously time consuming when you're already handling a lot of applications for just, you know, day to day run of the mill unemployment insurance claims. How long is it going to take your staff to go back and figure all this out? Deputy Commissioner Lavers, and do you have any idea of the percentage of people who have filed who were possibly, quote unquote, overpaid?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So the process that we have is there's a lot of moving parts there because as I had referenced, You. Could have someone who receives a determination of finding them ineligible in some of those weeks, they receive benefits and they might might appeal that, right? They disagree with it. So they exercise their appeal rights. So they go down the path of an appeal. They have an opportunity before a appeal tribunal chairperson to state their case as to why they feel they were eligible or why they feel that they shouldn't be found overpaid. And then folks also have the opportunity to request a waiver of that overpayment. And so the department we were waiting for guidance from the from the US Department of Labor on how to implement that. We got that guidance in January of this year. So we've been implementing that process. It's a it's an individual based process. We have to look at their their their waiver request. We have to look at their financial affidavit.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
And we started issuing decisions on those granting waivers or denying them based on the circumstances issuing those last week. So we're starting to ramp up with issuing those waivers and then those folks that have appeals. That's a that's a. A difficult process to try to expedite because of the level of knowledge and skill that someone really needs to be able to to effectively conduct a hearing like your caller was describing, you could have a dispute. The employer saying one thing, the claimant is saying another. We need someone who's knowledgeable about the program and its requirements and is and is able to conduct a hearing and is able to then determine who's more credible and decide what the the ultimate decision should be. Fortunately, we've we've been able to ramp up our staffing

Laura Knoy:
I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So we have we have we prior to the pandemic, we had four individuals conducting those hearings. We now have 10. We're actually issuing a request for proposals that's going to go out. Hopefully today might be tomorrow, Laura, where we're going to actually solicit support from New Hampshire licensed attorneys that want to enter into contracts with the department to conduct a hearing so that those appeal hearings, so we would quickly train them up and have a little more

Laura Knoy:
A little more help there. Yeah, it

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
May be a supplement. Supplement our ranks

Laura Knoy:
Well and sorry to jump in there, but I do need to take a very quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about why some unemployment insurance checks are a lot smaller this year than they were last year. I also have a couple of questions from listeners who had to drop out of the workforce because of closed school and child care situations. All that's coming up. So keep it right here. This is The Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy today, the latest on unemployment insurance with the deputy commissioner of New Hampshire's Department of Employment Security, Richard Lavers exchange listeners, it's been good to hear your questions and comments. Keep them coming in. Have you had filed for unemployment insurance during the course of the pandemic? What is your experience been? What questions do you have about who qualifies? What concerns do you have?

Laura Knoy:
And Deputy Commissioner Lavers, I have two emails that I want to read here back to back because both of them have similar issues. So here's one from Shannon and Shannon. I'll just share part of this email. I hope it gets to the fundamental issue. Shannon says I had to open a new unemployment claim on March 14 when my previous year of unemployment eligibility expired. This resulted in a 47 percent reduction in my weekly benefit. It appears the time period used to calculate my total base period based wages does not take into account the pandemic. My employer was completely closed during quarter two of twenty twenty and only a portion of employees were called back when my employer partially opened in July because I was not one of the employers brought back to work at that time. My wages in quarter two and three of twenty twenty were zero, Shannon says. My question why were pandemic months used in the calculation of total base period wages? Doesn't this penalize people who were laid off by their employers due to the pandemic and had no income besides unemployment? And along with Sharon and Deputy Commissioner Lavers another listener, Chris has a similar story about reduced 20-20 wages due to the pandemic being used now to calculate payments in 2021.

Laura Knoy:
Chris says, My wife works as a nail technician in Portsmouth. When everything was shut down, she was getting unemployment benefits. When things re-opened in the summer, she began working part time. Since the salon could not accommodate full staffing and she needed to supervise home schooling and child care. She was still receiving some benefits throughout the year until the fall, when things more fully opened and she could get shifts at work. So now, at the end of October, she stopped receiving benefits. And now, Chris says, covid has flared up in the state. Her salon is pulled back and she's partially laid off. The issue ended up being that employment security is now calculating the weekly benefit amount based on her twenty twenty wages, whereas it had been based on twenty nineteen wages last year. So now her weekly benefit amount has dropped forty five percent simply because the calendar turned over. So there Shannon and Chris, Deputy Commissioner Lavers wondering why their unemployment benefits in twenty twenty one are based on twenty twenty wages when both of their situations were, you know, highly fluctuating last year.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Yeah, so some some good questions there, Laura Knoy, some great points, a couple of things, things that don't change from one benefit year to the next with the current extension of the federal programs, is that the the plus up payment that the federal government has had in place starting at the six hundred dollar amount back in twenty twenty and now at three hundred dollars per week, that stays in effect. That is not something that is impacted by a change in your weekly benefit amount for your base program when you go from one benefit year to the next.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
The other pieces that don't change are the minimum weekly benefit amount. So if you're in the federal pandemic program, your minimum weekly benefit amount is one hundred and sixty eight dollars per week. And you then add the three hundred to that. And then if you're in the regular state unemployment program, your minimum per week is one hundred dollars. And then again you add three hundred dollars to that for purposes of calculating and determining somebody's weekly benefit amount. The requirements for the state unemployment program are that we look to your first four of the most recently completed five calendar quarters. That's how somebodies weekly benefit amount is required to be calculated by statute. So in some cases, and it depends on what program you're filing in and then what you had going on in those quarters, but there could be a reduction in the weekly benefit amount going forward in the subsequent benefit year. Those other elements don't change, but that basic benefit could change based on the circumstances of that individual for a lot of folks because of the program there and there is no change in their weekly benefit.

Laura Knoy:
So and you can see the situation that Chris writes about, for example, his wife, you know, and a lot of people provided direct services probably were in that situation. They had to shut down completely. Then they went back. Then things pulled back again. You said that that base wages are based on recently completed five calendar quarters by statute. So if that were to change, would that have to be a legislative change? Like you can't really do anything about that, correct?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
It's a it's a requirement in our state unemployment compensation law. So it's not it's not something that's discretionary for the department. We have a requirement to implement the statute as it's written, and that's how we are required to look at calculating a weekly benefit amount. So it's not something that the department can choose to do one way versus another.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. So Shannon and Chris want to talk to somebody about that. They need to speak to their state lawmaker, not the department, because, again, this is a this is the way the state law tells you to do it. And my understanding, you right there, Deputy Commissioner Lavers right.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
We can talk to them and explain to them how it was calculated. But if they were seeking a change in state law, then they would want to talk with their elected officials.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and here's an email from Andy who says he comes at this from the employer perspective, and he says, I'm interested in the assistant commissioner's description of the eligibility screening criteria as an employer. My experience has been that no reason is disqualifying when the standard is having been impacted by covid. My favorite was a person who voluntarily quit three months before covid was detected in the U.S., but was later granted benefits because they were judged to have been impacted by covid. There isn't any more outrageous than claims we've seen. This isn't any more outrageous than claims we've seen in non pandemic times, but it gets tiresome listening to the department repeatedly deny that it's a recurrent phenomenon. Andy, good to hear from you and Commissioner Lavers, can you address the side of it that Andy is bringing to the table, that some people are using these easier rules to, well, to get something that they might not deserve? That seems to be what Andy is saying.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
And I think Andy brings up some good points. I'm. Of the side that I firmly believe that the unemployment program serves a critical purpose and that people are honest and they certify to accurate things on their claims and the benefits that we pay out are critically important to them to continue to allow them to get through the pandemic. However, there are situations and that we've talked about overpayments Laura Knoy. There are situations where we find out some people were not honest with the department and it's unfortunate creates a lot of extra work for the department. It creates extra work for employers.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
But if, like Andy, if the employer is being responsible and doing their part and responding to department requests for information, and they explain to the department that a particular individual, their their stated reason for separation is inaccurate, that they maybe they walked off the job prior to the pandemic, maybe they left for a different job. Maybe they left for no reason. They just didn't show up anymore. If the employer is providing that information back to us, we have an obligation to then investigate that issue with that individual

Laura Knoy:
And describe the process. Yeah, go ahead.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So so it's a fairly easy but resource intensive process. We actually talk to both sides each and every time we talk to the employer, we talk to the claimant and maybe we go back and forth because the information is inconsistent. And the person that we have here at the department that's been trained and issuing decisions, those folks, they then take that information and then they determine, based on the information, which side is more credible.

Laura Knoy:
Well and we heard about that earlier with Eric, our caller, who had a situation like that. I have two emails. Deputy Commissioner Lavers related to parents with school and child care concerns. Diamond and Franklin writes, I left my career as a data analyst without the option to return due to covid related school closures. What does a parent like me to do if finding a similar position with the same growth in pay takes longer time and also wants to know, will my unemployment benefits be canceled due to schools having to reopen on April 19 per the governor's order? And Karen in Lacona has a similar question to Dimond. Karen says the governor has mandated that all New Hampshire schools must open full time on April 19th. Does this mean that unemployment will end for parents who had to leave their jobs in order to care for school aged children? Karen says, I have heard that this is a possibility that will hurt women especially hard, as they may not have jobs to which they can return. This is really interesting and I know I saw some information about this on your website this morning, Deputy Commissioner Lavers. But what is the status of unemployment benefits given to parents who had to leave a job because schools were closed? Once schools are open, do their unemployment, does their unemployment insurance go away?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So we have one important piece of this law is that the eligibility based on someone who's unable to work because the school or care facility that they find their child is closed or is not providing a five day per week in person instruction that is eligible. That's a piece of eligibility under the federal CARES Act. Right. So we have to we have to then play by the federal rules on how we implement those provisions. So the guidance that the US Department of Labor had issued last August, we then put up on our website and we have a series of information that goes to individuals that are certifying to that reason on their weekly claim. It states that if the child or dependent for whom you are your primary caretaker for is in remote learning, then you're eligible if they're in a hybrid model. So there's some remote there's some in person, then the parent is still eligible for unemployment. But as soon as the district offers five day per week in school instruction, the federal guidance used that school is being open. It is no longer closed in the school or facility.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Being closed is an element of the eligibility under the CARE Act. So when schools are starting to offer five days per week instruction, parents would no longer be eligible to certify and be paid benefits for that reason. Now there could be other reasons or could be other reasons could be that either the parent or a child has underlying health conditions, that a medical provider has advised that the parent self quarantined for. So there could be other reasons why the parent would continue to be eligible after the district then starts offering five days per week instruction. But, you know, we knew we knew this was going to be an issue at some point. The spring districts where we're looking at reopening and offering five day a week instruction throughout. Some already were April and May. So we knew it was going to be an issue. That's why we've tried to get that information out there to individuals that have that fall into that eligibility category so that they're aware of the requirements so that they can best prepare going forward.

Laura Knoy:
Well, there is more information on the website and listeners. Our website is Nhpr.org Exchange, so we have more information there, including a link to the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security website. So once again, it's Nhpr.org exchange deputy Commissioner Lavers. A couple more questions from listeners when we come back. Stay with us. This is The Exchange on NHP.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy tomorrow on our show, it's the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup, including a check in with state Senate President Chuck Morse. And later, the head of New Hampshire's New Office of Outdoor Recreation join host Peter Biello for the news roundup Friday morning, live at nine. Today, we're talking about updates to unemployment insurance in New Hampshire with Richard Lavers. He's deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Employment Securities and listeners. It's been good to hear from you.

Laura Knoy:
Carolyn in Bedford says, Two questions. My husband lost his job at the end of February and they still haven't even made a decision of whether he is even eligible. Never mind getting paid. How long does it take for a decision? I'm assuming she's talking about, you know, getting unemployment insurance there. And then Carolyn says, my job was changed from a full time job to a part time per diem three weeks ago and still waiting for a decision as well. I searched the website high and low, can't find the information on how the payment amount is calculated. And it just leads me to links that send me to log in. And when I do, it's the regular dashboard. The information isn't there. How do I find out how the weekly benefit amount is calculated? Wow. Carolyn, you have been through the ringer there. I am so sorry. And Deputy Commissioner Lavers, what general advice do you have for someone like Carolyn who is in a tough situation and needs some information

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
On one thing? Laura, obviously, you know, we talked about it. We'll get the information from those listeners because we want to make sure that we're answering their questions and helping them get through the process. And one thing for Carolyn, she's able to review the new claim instruction sheet along with the Rights and Obligations booklet that she was provided upon the filing of her new claim. A lot of great information in there about how to file, when to file and how your benefits are calculated in addition to that information being available on our Web site. We're doing a complete rewrite of our website right now. We launched a new microsite during the pandemic to try to get the most relevant information delivered in a better fashion and not have such cluttered pages for people I know. I hate that when I go to a website with just too much information that overwhelms you. So we're actually revamping our entire website right now, hoping to have that up and running by I could be as soon as June. So that's a big project to allow us to communicate more effectively with the public.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
With regard to timing of first payment, we've actually gotten out a little bit ahead of ourselves. And sometimes during the pandemic, we've been paying faster than we did during the Great Recession, despite having four or five times more claims. And we actually had a few instances because of the huge influx of identity theft, related fraud. We were actually paying a little bit too fast to allow our fraud investigators to have completed a review of all those claims. So there's a lot of competing interests there on how quickly you make a payment. Generally right now, depending on the issue, on your claim, the circumstances of why you're filing can determine how long that takes. It sounds. And both of those cases that I would like to work with those individuals, make sure they're moving through the process as quickly as their claim allows. But right now, there we are continuing to issue those eligibility determinations and issue payments as quickly as we possibly can. Wow. Yeah. And I think and I think our people are doing a really good job.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And a February that's that's getting scary there, I'm sure, for Carolyn and her husband. And I know that Carolyn will help you get in touch with the people that you need to possibly get in touch with to move that along. Here's another story from Iliza in Plymouth who says, My husband and I've been dealing with an overpayment mess since last September. Long story short, he's a gig worker, sole income provider for a family. We've gone through three appeals and are waiting on a waiver. We found the state prioritizes W-2 income because he receives a fraction of his income through to work and the majority as ten, ninety nine and self claimed he can only receive assistance for the prioritized to work. However, the state also paid him for his main self employment income, which they later said was a mistake and asked for back to the tune of thousands of much needed dollars. I know there's a glitch in the system that has caught up many, many. People who earn their income from multiple sources, we're still waiting on a response regarding our waiver months later. Yeah, SEPs a long time ago, Iliza. And just to clarify, Deputy Commissioner Lavers two is sort of standard. You have a job, you have a boss, you get a check, right. Ten ninety nine is more you work freelance, you work on your own projects. And that's that kind of work, is that correct?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Yeah, that's a great description, Laura. I think I'm going to start using that one,

Laura Knoy:
What you can do to with it.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So it's regarding the questionnaire about prioritizing W2 versus ten ninety nine. The department is not prioritizing that. The federal government, in the guidance that they've issued to states on what income can be used and what program they are telling us what we can use and when we can use it. So in a situation where you have a mixed earnings situation where there's both W-2 and ten ninety nine income, the department is required by federal guidance to first determine whether or not that individual had enough W-2 income to qualify for regular state unemployment. And if they did, we are prohibited from using their self employment earnings in order to calculate their weekly benefit amount. And that's the SO that's straight from U.S. Department of Labor on what states are allowed and what we're prohibited from doing. Now, there are situations that the agency made mistakes with regard to combining wages and earnings, and there are times with an individual caused in error if the department is at fault, which it sounds like that your caller situation, we were at fault in combining those earnings, then they've received benefits that they shouldn't have received and they're not going to have to pay them back.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So they've it sounds like they've submitted the waiver request, hopefully by going to our website and finding the forms available for them. Those waivers are being reviewed by federal government. Guidance requires that we review each one of those individually. We have to look at that financial affidavit, make sure that they pass the federal test before we are able to confirm and certify to that individual that the debt has been forgiven and they don't have to repay. So that process is ongoing. But as you can tell from the description of it, it's resource heavy and where you have to go through each and every one of these. But bottom line, we're not asking for anything from that individual. When they have a pending waiver request, they've received dollars that they shouldn't have. And as long as they are not at fault and causing that overpayment, then it's not dollars they will have to repay to the state.

Laura Knoy:
One last question for you, Deputy Commissioner Lavers, because you just touched on it a moment ago and unfortunately have to ask you to be quick. We're running out of time. You, your department and the attorney general's office recently warned Granite Staters about fraud, saying citizens should not provide personal information over the phone or emails by entities pretending to be your department employment security. So what should folks watch out, watch out for there?

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
So there's been a tremendous amount of identity theft related fraud law during this pandemic. It's not a fraud, not identity stolen as a result of any breach of any state system. These are breaches of large scale occurrences over the past decade. Think Anthem, think Equifax, think TJ, Max, we've all heard about them, but you have criminals who are now using those stolen identities to try to file for unemployment benefits. And they're also trying to gain and leverage information from you in order to come in and try to hijack your unemployment claim to redirect those payments from your account to somewhere else. So we constantly remind people and the attorney general's office has been a great partner in this and that if you are unsure as to the legitimacy of the person you are speaking with on the phone, that we do make calls, we receive calls, we make calls.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
But if you are unsure that the person you're speaking with is from the department, hang up and call back at two seven one seventy seven hundred. We will never we'll never text individuals asking them for information. But when you're suspicious, hang up, call the number and you'll make sure that you're going to be dealing with a legitimate person. I mean, we can help you guard your personal information.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and we'll put that number on our website again. And I'm glad we got that in there right at the end of the show. Deputy Commissioner Lavers, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it, Laura.

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers:
Always a great opportunity to talk to you and to the Nhpr.org crowd, very much appreciate it. Thank you.

Laura Knoy:
That's Richard Lavers deputy commissioner at the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security. Today's show was produced by exchange senior producer Christina Phillips.

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